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Henry III, murdered in 1589, was the last ruler of the Valois dynasty. A clever legislator, he demonstrated a strong desire for national unity in a France then undermined by the Wars of Religion. Intelligent and cultured, this king of France left a contrasting image of himself, sometimes hostage to a black legend, where homophobia and accusations of inconstancy, even tyranny, mingle. Beyond this perception, the political action of Henri III allowed his successor Henri de Navarre to put an end to the civil war.
Henri, Duke of Anjou
Henri is the fourth son ofHenry II, king of France and Catherine de Medici. He was initially baptized under the first name of Alexandre-Édouard. The choice of the first name Edouard owes nothing to chance, and in itself sums up the political and religious contradictions which agitated the kingdom of France at the time. He receives the title of Duke of Anjou.
Edouard, an unusual name among the Valois, was indeed a tribute to the child's godfather: Edward VI teenage king of an England tempted by Calvinist reform. Although King Henry II was at the forefront of the repression of Protestantism, he still retained a strong political sense. England could be an ally of choice in the fight against the Habsburgs, and it could be a gesture towards the Huguenot nobility with increasing influence.
Alexandre Edouard, who became Henri in 1565, lived his childhood, like his brothers and sisters, far from his parents, in Blois. Nevertheless his mother Catherine de Medici, as a good Florentine, ensured that her son received a careful education, typical of the Renaissance. His master (like that of his older brother, the future Charles IX) was Jacques Aymot. A true well of knowledge, this specialist of Plutarch, was able to detect in the young Valois, the qualities which made him a cultivated and eloquent sovereign: "one of the best sayers of his century. »
Very quickly the young prince was associated with the exercise of royal power, and took part at the age of 7 in his first States General (those of 1560). Favorite child of Catherine, who had become regent, accomplished swordsman, and endowed with a beautiful presence, c It is only natural that he was appointed Lieutenant General of the kingdom, at only 16 years old… Thus began his real political career.
In the turmoil of the wars of religion
Second military ruler of France after his brother King Charles IX, Henry made himself an enemy of the leader of the Protestant party, the formidable Prince of Condé, who coveted this charge. Their quarrel, causes the departure of the court of Condé, and the beginning of the second religious war (1567).
Henry, anxious to protect royal authority, asserted himself as a competent general, notably by winning the battle of Jarnac, which will see the tragic end of the Prince of Condé. His younger brother's rising star begins to cast a shadow over King Charles IX. The result is a disagreement which pushes Henri to approach the camp of Duke of Guise (Family of Lorraine origin then inescapable), the champion of ultra Catholicism.
While Charles would rather advocate reconciliation with the Reformed (certainly due to the influence of his Protestant friend, Admiral de Coligny), Henri is in favor of a firmer attitude. In his mind, it is already clear that royal authority cannot suffer from dissent whether religious or otherwise.
The prince’s involvement in the massacres of Saint Bartholomew (last days of August 1572), remains a subject of controversy. Caught between the extremism of the Catholic League and supporters of the Guise, and his duty to maintain order (in a rebellious Paris plagued by religious fanaticism), he is also preoccupied with events further afield. Henry is no longer satisfied with being the second in the kingdom, and now a crown seems to be offered to him ...
On July 7, 1572, the King of Poland-Lithuania Sigismund Auguste Jagiello dies. The state he led is very original within Christendom. This noble republic, very diverse ethnically and religiously, elects its kings. However, a not insignificant part of the nobility there is Protestant, and Henri intends to ensure their support in the next election.
It is therefore difficult to see him inciting the populace to massacre the Reformed on August 24, 1572 ... After new fights against the Protestant party (the religious wars having resumed their bloody course) including a failure in front of La Rochelle, the prince in full idyll with Marie of Cleves, is elected King of Poland. On August 19, 1573, a Polish delegation came to meet the future king Henryk walezy and present to him the laws of his future kingdom.
Henri, who in good Valois was a partisan of a strong royal authority, had to come to terms with the Polish-Lithuanian realities. The new king was thus compelled to sign The Articles of King Henry, a set of laws that committed him to end the persecution of Protestants in France and to respect religious tolerance. Noting that his royal prerogatives would be largely limited, Henry was in no hurry to leave for Krakow, which he did not join until February 1574 ...
From King of Poland to King of France
The young King, admittedly well aware of the need for religious tolerance within his new states, could not suffer the independence of the Diet and the nobility. He tries by all means to consolidate his authority, without succeeding completely, despite being very involved in his new tasks. Henri has to admit that he "reign but do not rule. »
On June 14, 1574 he learned of the death of his brother Charles IX, of whom he was the heir. On the 18th, he secretly left Poland, for this kingdom of France, where he intended to reign on the throne of France in the manner of his model: François Ier. After an incredible escape (which will earn him a black legend in Poland), and a journey punctuated with celebrations to match the character, Henri arrived in France in September 1574.
He was crowned king on February 13, 1575, marrying two days later with Louise de Vaudémont-Nomény, Princess Lorraine of great beauty, but above all close to the Guise party. Henry III knew the magnitude of the task that awaited him. Restoring peace and concord within the kingdom, a necessary prerequisite for the consolidation of royal power, implies winning the good graces of ultra Catholics, as well as of their Huguenot enemies ...
Bad luck for the king, his younger brother Duke of Alençon, shifts the balance in favor of the Protestant party, when it allies itself with Henri of Navarre (the future Henry IV), entered into armed rebellion ... The resulting war turns into disaster for the king, and he is forced by the ’Edit by Beaulieu (May 1576), to grant a peace very favorable to the Protestants. In reaction is born The League, the armed wing of ultra-Catholicism.
With the peace of Beaulieu, the king seems worn out before he reigned. His brother, guarantor of the alliance between moderate Catholics and Protestants, is the strongman of the kingdom, and the treasury coffers are almost empty. However, Henri is not without options. Making good use of the humiliation of the Catholics, the king made them his bulwark and protector, which earned him a chance to draw closer to the Guises once again.
In order to obtain the financial means necessary for his revenge, Henri summons the States General in Blois (1577), where he showed great tactical skill. Faced with deputies who are already planning to reform the kingdom in a parliamentary sense, "When states write, it is France itself that writes. ", he exploits divisions and rivalries, to bury any constitutional pretensions, and to assert himself once again as the undisputed leader of Catholics. Despite his tenacity, however, he did not obtain the financial means he asked for, and learned the lesson from it. His successors will remember his distrust of parliamentarians.
Anyway the war resumes soon (sixth religious war, 1577), and sees the victory (modest, but real) of the royal camp. The monarch received the support of his brother, who for a time swallowed his ambitions.
With the Edict of Poitiers (1577), which puts an end to the conflict, the Protestant camp must accept various concessions. It is time for Henri to consolidate his position by showing diplomacy. Through his mother Catherine, always present, he initiated a rapprochement with Henri de Navarre, while supporting his brother's activities in the Netherlands. These have the advantage of uniting Catholics and Protestants in the confrontation against the hereditary enemy: the Habsburgs, Henry IV will remember!
The War of the Three Henri
1584: seven years of relative peace, seven years of consolidation of royal authority, seven years of intense legislative work and yet Henry knows his throne is in danger. After almost ten years of marriage to Louise of Lorraine, he still has no heir and here is his brother, who asserted himself as a valuable successor, dies of tuberculosis.
The Valois dynasty is apparently destined to die out. According to Salic law, the crown should revert upon the death of Henri III to Henri de Navarre, leader of the Protestant party. This is of course unacceptable to Catholic opinion, which exerts constant pressure on the king to appoint himself a Catholic successor. The city of Paris, entirely in the hands of the League, is agitating very dangerously.
The time has come for Duke Henri de Guise to triumph. Ultra Catholic passions condemn Henry III to a new war, as confirmed the Treaty of Nemours (July 1585), where he agrees to "kick heretics out of the kingdom. »
This War of the Three Henri (Henri III de Valois, Henri de Guise and Henri de Navarre) will indeed oppose three camps and not two. Indeed, although apparently rallied to ultra-Catholicism, Henry III did not cut all ties with Protestants. The king, anxious to maintain the independence of his states, knows the Duke of Guise powerfully supported by the Habsburgs. On the other hand, a total defeat of Navarre would benefit too much the ambitious Duke of Lorrain, whom the king did not like. Henri therefore waged a war with allies he despised (the Leaguers) against an enemy (Henri de Navarre) whom he esteemed.
The result is a confused situation, the king trying to maintain a precarious balance between the belligerents. The slightest misstep could be fatal to him.
Henri’s maneuvers ended up exceeding the Duke of Guise, who in May 1588 challenged his authority and entered Paris, acclaimed by the leaguers. Fearing a coup, the king dispatched his troops to Paris, which sparked an insurrection, the famous Barricades Day of May 13, 1588.
Although gaining time by starting talks with the Leaguers, the last of the Valois has made his decision. Henri de Guise must disappear, overtaken by the excesses of the Parisian Leagues (whose practices and demands are not unlike those of the supporters of ’Etienne Marcel, 2 centuries earlier), the duke put the royal authority in great danger. Henry III feared above all that a victory of the league would bring about the end of the centralizing work of the kings of France.
During the year 1588, Henri de Guise's position weakened. With the reduction of generous Spanish subsidies (following in particular the defeat of the Invincible Armada), the duke loses its splendor. Fearing that the king would sign peace with his rival the King of Navarre, he resolved to negotiate with Henri III during the Estates General of Blois.
On December 23, 1588, on the occasion of a royal council, the King ordered the assassination of the Duke of Guise, by the« Forty five ", His close guard. This assassination puts an end to the ambiguity of the royal position, but also provokes the uprising of League France. The king is doomed to gemonies by ultra-Catholics, who call for the murder of the one they now consider a "tyrant".
Quite logically Henry III only sees salvation in a complete reconciliation with Henry of Navarre, who asserts himself as his successor (on the Tacit condition, that he abandons, once again, the Protestant faith). The two Henri will go to besiege Paris together, in the hands of the leaguers, whose militias were equipped at the expense of the Habsburgs.
The king, installed in Saint Cloud, will not have the opportunity to see the destruction of the league. 1er August 1589, a fanatic monk, named Jacques Clément, agent of the leaguers, assassinates him with a stab. Thus ended the dynasty of the Valois ...
Henri III, the last of the Valois
As his actions prove, Henry III always aimed to maintain and strengthen royal authority, in a highly unfavorable context. His complex personality and his twists and turns (often dictated by circumstances) have earned him an unenviable reputation. However, the latter is largely due to the hate propaganda which was spread in its time by its enemies.
It was said to be weak. He will indeed have yielded on numerous occasions to pressure exerted by the great, but never ceasing to regain control thereafter. He has been said to be cowardly and effeminate. In love with beauty, often surrounded by elegant young men (the famous cuties), he is certainly not a harsh medieval ruler thirsty for glory. However, it is too quickly forgetting his warlike youth, and his personal courage, amply proven in Jarnac, or Moncontour. As for the rumors concerning her sexuality (the famous pink legend), they hardly bear any relation to her many female conquests ...
It has been said to be frivolous and immoral. He will certainly never have denied his extravagant taste for festivals and the arts, but he was also a devout king, worried about the salvation of his soul, with amazing demonstrations of faith.
King Henry III, beyond the difficulties with which he had to face, will have succeeded in governing, and will have bequeathed to the kingdom a considerable legislative work (the Henri III Code). He had a high idea of royal authority, and of the state a modern conception. He will have avoided the collapse of a French monarchy, which it will be up to his successors to make a great power again.
By Henri III, Agrippa d'Aubigné summed up the feelings of many French people of the day towards the king: "This is the end of Henry the Third, prince of pleasant conversation with his family, lover of letters, liberal beyond all kings, courageous in youth and then desired by all; in old age beloved of little, who had great parts of a king, wished to be before he was, and worthy of the kingdom if he had not reigned… »
- - Pierre Chevallier, Henri III: Shakespearian king, Paris, Fayard, 1985.
- - Michel, Pernot, Henri III, the decried king, Livre de Poche, 2017.
- - Jean François Solnon, Henri III: a desire for majesty, Perrin, 2001.